Dairy finds cash in new places

Cheese maker | Monforte Dairy’s unconventional business model wins prize for innovation

STRATFORD, Ont. — The altruistic aspects of her artisanal cheese business are Ruth Klahsen’s prime motivation, but the dollars and cents still matter.

“We need a different business model where you make a living, not get rich,” the owner of Monforte Dairy said.

“My line has always been, poverty sucks but money doesn’t make you happy.”

The “right thing” for Klahsen is connecting her customers with their food and where it comes from. She and her employees — there’s up to 25 at times — produce 25 to 30 cheeses from sheep, cow, water buffalo and goat milk.

They are sold from the plant and through 30 independent markets, including several in Toronto. Given the nature of the venues, Klahsen said it’s better to produce a wide variety of cheeses rather than focusing production on a few.

However, she said the opposite would likely be true if her sole priority was profitability. In addition, she would likely put pressure on her suppliers to lower their prices, market through a broker and hire an Indian cheese maker rather than developing her own talent.

“That wouldn’t be any fun, so I won’t do it.”

Klahsen also took an unconventional route in raising capital for her business, taking it from leased premises to her own plant.

Five years later, it has proven to be a model that works. She generated close to $500,000 by approaching 1,000 prospective customers.

For an upfront investment of $1,000, $500 or $200, customers re-ceived vouchers worth $1,500, $750 or $250. These have since been exchanged for cheese.

Klahsen also qualified for close to $750,000 in federal and provincial loans and an $180,000 provincial grant.

As the winner of the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence last year, Klahsen received an additional $75,000, which she is sinking into yet another project, a school for cheese makers.

The plan is to take up to eight students, who will be trained by educator and consultant Neville McNaughton from the CheezSorce at St. Louis, Missouri. McNaughton, a founder of Kapiti Fine Foods, an artisanal cheese company in New Zealand, is widely recognized as an expert in crafting cheese.

Klahsen said the school will bring further improvements to the quality of cheese at Monforte along with providing educational opportunities.

“Artisanal cheeses are the most difficult to make,” she said.

Instead of trying to standardize the process, artisanal cheeses are made on a batch-to-batch basis using a combination of art and science. A single bacterial culture is used for each batch, but four or five different cheeses can be made by using different techniques.

With sheep milk, for instance, Monforte makes feta and fresco, cheese cousins, halloumi, which is poached fresco, and ricotta, which is made from whey.

Klahsen puts in 100 hours a week taking care of distribution and management and keeping an eye on production, but her vision extends to yet another project.

She plans to go back to her customers to help raise $500,000 to buy a 50-acre farm with an old bank barn and farmhouse.

The idea is to establish a learning centre geared toward honing the husbandry skills of dairy farmers, educating consumers, training future cheese makers and feeding people.

It’s to be modeled, more or less, on a similar enterprise in England: Rose Cottage. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but Klahsen has a record of success.

She’s now processing 20 tonnes of cheese annually with $2.2 million in sales. Inventory can add up to $600,000.

She works directly with her farmer suppliers, who are primarily pasture and forage based. They receive a top price for their milk. No genetically modified feed is allowed, and farmers avoid the use of antibiotics and hormones.

Klahsen admitted that cash flow is a challenge.

“We’re not the easiest to work with. We’re often slow to pay.”

Her son, Daniel Szoller, is in charge of ripening the cheese. He’s like his mother in looks and attitude.

“I like that we matter in people’s lives. That’s very important to me. The work we do feels important,” Szoller said.

Prior to her cheese-making venture, Klahsen was the chef at the Stratford Festival’s Greenroom, which serves the festival’s administrative and artistic staff.

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